In this 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Reformation, publications about the movement, and especially about its prime initiator Martin Luther, abound. Some books will treat him as an iconic figure whose bold declarations shaped Protestantism from its beginnings. Others may present the enormous impact the Reformation had on European history and culture, with Luther as the imposing force that got it all going. No one can deny that the Augustinian friar from Wittenberg University has exercised profound influence in the five centuries that have followed his 95 Theses. But it is altogether too easy to lose Luther the human being as we look back from historical distance. He can become a monumental figure, a bronze statue standing boldly against the background of our contemporary world.
Thankfully, that is not the Luther readers will find in Craig Harline’s book A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation. Harline set out to write a treatment of Luther that would be accessible to the general reader, not primarily the fellow academic reveling in the intricacies of scholarly argument. For those who know the relevant primary and secondary sources, it is clear that Harline has done his research: He moves deftly among competing scholarly views and manifests thorough familiarity with the original sources. But he does so without the heavy weight of ponderous footnoting and citation. What he offers here is a winsome introduction to Luther as the movement that would eventually become the Protestant Reformation gets going with him.
But Harline writes in a way that does not assume the ultimate outcome. He writes “in the moment,” taking pains to present Luther as he moved, lurched forward, stumbled, and found his way in the uncertainties of the years between 1517 and 1522. These were the years when the future could not have been forecast, when the issues were in doubt and the imposing forces arrayed against the Wittenberg professor seemed certain to rid themselves of this pesky German nuisance. This makes for exciting reading as the author leads us on the convoluted paths taken during these years.
Luther the Monk
Harline presents Luther in the tangled nets of his certainty and uncertainty, bluster and fear, trust and doubt of God—all at one and the same time, each bubbling up in startling and (to his contemporaries) often enough confusing mixtures. Luther comes across here as a real person, struggling to find his way forward as he seeks to rediscover the comforting message of the Christian faith, buried so long under piles of well-meant ecclesiastical clutter, preposterous misuse of hierarchical privilege, and chaotic conclusions of competing schools of scholastic theology. Harline’s portrayal of the desperately searching Luther rings true: He recognizes that you cannot understand Luther the Reformer without first understanding Luther the monk.
A World Ablaze does not try to depict or describe Luther the Reformer, but the sketch it produces of Luther the monk has all the lineaments of the towering figure he was poised to become. Readers will get a good sense of the uncertainties of these testy few years, the struggles that preoccupied Luther (and both his supporters and opponents), and the tumultuous events taking place all around him.
Luther could be irascible and stubborn. He showed dramatic bravery and fearful hesitation. He manifested extraordinary humor and undeniable pettiness. That is to say, he was a genuine human being, confronting both the fearful prospect of standing before a demanding divine Judge at the end of his life and also the agonizing uncertainties of human existence. He was confident enough to claim peace with God through justification by faith alone but also anxious enough to whether he alone could be in the right in his claims to understand Scripture. He could relish the support of friends but turn against them if they didn’t follow his preferred path.
Harline shows how Luther remained dependent on the support of a prince (Frederick of Electoral Saxony) he had never met, whose relic collections Luther excoriated but whose prearranged kidnapping of Luther (and protection in Wartburg Castle) after the 1521 Diet of Worms safeguarded Luther from the consequences of the diet’s condemnation of Luther as an outlaw in the Holy Roman Empire. The author manages to get into the likely mindset of that prince and his advisers as they sought to find their way through the political complexities of that ramshackle imperial body. Much was going on in Germany beyond the Luther affair, and Harline brings in enough of it to help readers sense why these other issues demanded so much attention from religious and political leaders—leaving Luther the space he needed to continue on his uncertain path.
A Masterful Account
Harline is a superb writer. Each chapter begins with an artfully crafted presentation setting the background for what will follow, opening up windows into the lived realities of the figures whose (in)actions feature prominently in ensuing pages. This book could stand on its own as a sparkling novel, full of suspense, intricate interplay between imposing political forces, and recalcitrant ecclesiastical leaders, with a lonely and unlikely protagonist uncertainly standing up to it all. But this is no imaginative novel: It is a beautifully constructed portrayal of what took place five centuries ago. Historical novels too often jump over archival data and factual precision in the attempt to entertain, but A World Ablaze avoids these pitfalls.
Some well-known biographies focus on Luther up to the early 1520s, leaving untreated the tumultuous but important later years. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (published in 1950) is perhaps preeminent among them. Over the last couple of generations, however, more scholarly attention has been paid to the mature Luther, whose fulminations against others (whether the Jewish people or other would-be associates in the Reformation movement) became so strident and dismissive. Martin Brecht’s three-volume biography of Luther (completed in 1999) and Mark Edwards’s Luther’s Last Battles (published in 1983) have dealt well with these challenging periods in Luther’s life.
Harline makes clear that he is not trying to present a complete biography of Luther the Reformer. He gives enough information about Luther’s life before 1517 to prepare for his focus, and his epilogue offers a concise overview of what followed for Luther after 1522. In between, we’re treated to a masterful, engaging, and eminently readable account of the blaze that engulfed 16th-century Europe. Luther was at the center of it, not (as his vigorous opponents intended) as one burned at the stake but as the one who unwittingly got the blaze going and fed it fuel. If you are going to read any books about Martin Luther this year, make sure you include this one.
James R. Payton Jr. is professor emeritus of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He is the author of Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic).